Sermon preached on Matthew 5:1-12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/12/2014 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Last Sunday we began a new sermon series through the Sermon on the Mount. We mentioned the kingdom focus of the sermon. Jesus said that the coming of the kingdom of heaven is at hand; so now he is talking about the how to enter into that kingdom, and what his kingdom is all about. In many ways this would have challenged his original Jewish audience as to what the Messiah and his kingdom was really all about. So then, today we dig into the first main section of this sermon, the Beatitudes. This sermon starts with this section which describes a little about the people who are a part of his kingdom.
So realize then what the Beatitudes really are. They are a pronouncement of blessedness on those who are of this kingdom of heaven. That’s how Jesus’ sermon starts out — pronouncing blessings on those who belong to his kingdom. Essentially, it’s talking about how the citizens of the kingdom of heaven will look right now, and explaining that this is a blessed thing. Realize that these beatitudes are not chiefly commands. That’s how sometimes they are treated. We see blessed are those who are this or that, and so the teaching becomes a call to be that way. Blessed are the poor in spirit, so therefore, be poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek, therefore be meek. Now, though there certainly is some application that would come to us along those lines, don’t miss the fact that first and foremost these opening verses are not explicitly commands. They are descriptions of those who are blessed, and the identity of these blessed people are clearly also those who belong to Christ’s kingdom.
Let me give you an analogy from another verse to make this point. Revelation 14:13 says this: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” It’s the same Greek construction there in Revelation as here in the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord”. When you hear that, you don’t immediately think of that as a command. It’s not a command to go and die in the Lord in order to find blessing. Yes, there’s an application there. Whenever we do die, we want to make sure that we die in the Lord. But it’s not a command to go seek death. Rather, Revelation 14:13 is giving an encouragement to those Christians who do die, that even though they die, they are blessed. We should recognize that these opening verses of blessings in the Sermon on the Mount come first to us as descriptions and encouragements. The commands that come out of them are only by implication. The implication is that we want to be part of those experiencing this blessing, and so we seek out belonging to his kingdom. But that’s a secondary implication. This is an important point so as to not miss the tone of this part of the sermon. Jesus starts out his sermon about what it means to be in his kingdom, and he puts it first in terms of blessing. You are blessed to be in his kingdom.
It would appropriate to note that the word for blessed here in the Beatitudes could also be translated as happy. There are two different words in the Bible that tend to be translated as bless. The kind like you have in benedictions, i.e. “the Lord bless you and keep you” — that’s God’s direct bestowal of something good upon you. But, that’s not the word used here. Then you have another word, like the one used here, that tends to talk about how someone is in a good state, a positive state, in a way that arguably that can be translated as happy. Not a fickle happiness. But a deep sense of contentment because of the good received from the Lord. You might also refer to this as divinely fortunate, or something like that. This is like the word used at the start of Psalm 1:1, where it is says blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked. The same argument is rightly made there too, that you could also translate Psalm 1:1 as “happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.”
Realize then the challenge of this, regardless of the exact nuance of translation. Would the Jew of that day expect to hear that the person who is blessed and or happy is the one that is described here? Or what about today? Would people today expect to hear that such a person is blessed? Well, on the surface, the language of poverty, mourning, hungering, and thirsting, is not be the language we might tend to associate with at first with a blessed life. Some of these labels are used in a spiritual sense, though interestingly in Luke 6 in a different sermon he gave some similar beatitudes, using some of the same language of poverty and hunger without the spiritual qualification. Either way, the overarching quality of these blessings is a picture of some meager estate being changed into a state of fullness. A state that on its surface might not strike you as a state of blessing, happiness, or prosperity. But Jesus nonetheless declares such a person blessed or happy. Why? because of various reversals or fulfillments that will take place.
So many of these blessings are connected with some kind of reversal or fulfillment. The poor in spirit in this age will find entrance into this kingdom of heaven. Those mourning, will find comfort. Those who are meek, will see that state enlarged by becoming inheritors of the whole earth! Those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, will find such desire satiated. The persecuted will find their great reward in the kingdom of heaven.
To help you appreciate the surprising nature of these, particularly to a Jew, just
contrast this with the old covenant blessings and curses among Israel. We see this in Deuteronomy 28, for example. Deuteronomy 28 said that if the people lived righteously, according to the law of Moses, that they would live in a state of full and plenty in the Promised Land — a land described of milk and honey. Two chapters later, Deuteronomy 30 describes how the people won’t live like that, and so they’ll eventually find themselves cursed and exiled and scattered all over (outside of the Promised Land). But Deuteronomy 30 goes on to predict that one day the people would repent and God would bring them back from captivity, and bring them back into the Promised Land, and in fact that God would at that time prosper the people more than he did with their forefathers. Deuteronomy 30 goes on to say how at that time God would circumcise the hearts of his people then, to make the people truly love God and live.
So, this is the tension in the Sermon on the Mount. The people had lost the kingdom. They were now back in the Promised Land, but still really under the political captivity of the Romans. They heard Jesus announce the coming of the kingdom with a call to repent. So then, they were probably expecting to immediately become more prosperous, more blessed, than their forefathers ever were, like Deuteronomy 30 promised. And so Jesus comes announcing blessings connected with his Messianic kingdom. But at first glance, it was probably not what many expected. He didn’t come announcing material and earthly blessings and fullness. He actually promised blessings from heaven upon largely people who are not full and outwardly not so materially blessed. My point here is that such blessings pronounced by Jesus would surely have challenged the people, at least to some degree. They’d have to begin to think of what it meant to be someone who was blessed in this kingdom. And what those blessings even mean.
Here’s where the language of the already/not yet is helpful. The people described as blessed in these opening verses, are seen having various needs. Some of those areas of need mentioned here, are going to begin to find some measure of answer and fulfillment even here and now, in this life, as Christ’s kingdom is begun to be experienced inwardly by Christians. But much of those needs are not going to find immediate filling here and now. Not until the coming of the kingdom in glory. Jesus is announcing that even now we can become citizens of this kingdom of heaven, and we should see ourselves blessed even if things happen to you that you would not have considered before as a sign of blessing. Like being persecuted for righteousness.
This calls for faith. Faith that sees the value of heavenly blessings on earth. And faith that sees that the value of future heavenly and eternal blessings is something better than the fleeting temporary treasures of today. Again, from an old covenant Jewish perspective, you might have simplistically connected righteousness with earthly prosperity; if so you would have found this especially difficult. Surely, this was behind some of the difficulty the rich young ruler faced who later came to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life. The rich young ruler man compared himself with the law of God and thought he had kept it pretty well. He probably even looked at his riches and privileged position of rule as a sign that he had been blessed by God for his works. But Jesus challenged all that. He spoke to his riches and his position of authority by telling him to give away his riches and go from being a ruler to start following Jesus. That had to be a hard teaching for him to accept. It would have challenged his understanding about what blessing and righteousness was all about. But that’s the point of this Sermon on the Mount and these Beatitudes. The point is basically something like this: Citizens of Christ’s heavenly kingdom are going to have a radical form of righteousness, beyond anything you’ve seen so far. You won’t ever be content in this life with that righteousness, but constantly seek it more and more. Such righteousness will involve radical sacrifice, forgiveness, and zeal for the Lord. In the process, you will surely find troubles in this world, particularly by enemies of Christ who hate you. In turn you are to radically love even them and others who don’t deserve your care. But in the end, be assured that already you have begun to taste of Christ’s heavenly kingdom here and now. And in the end you will taste of it in glory. This is the blessed life, Jesus says.
Besides the obvious challenge to what people think the blessed and happy life should be all about, there is another challenge that comes up in all of this. It’s the challenge that none of us adequately resembles the picture of the blessed people in this passage. Just take the one in verse 8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I’m sorry, but no ordinary human has met that qualification. How could any of us them expect to see God then?
And yet Jesus is the king of this kingdom, and he expects per this sermon that there are people in his kingdom. That’s the point of the last two blessings. The people who are persecuted are referenced. Notice, by the way, that verse 11 talks about people who are persecuted on Christ’s account. Don’t miss the claim that’s implied when he says something like that. We might take it for granted because we’ve come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. But in talking about being persecuted for the sake of the kingdom and for righteousness, he can put his own name on par with that. He can talk about how people are blessed who are persecuted for his sake, because he is the long awaited king of this kingdom of heaven.
And so this Sermon on the Mount delivers God’s law to us in a profound way. As we meditate on this, there should be at least two related effects on us. First, initially it should bring us to the point of mourning to realize that we don’t resemble very well the people who are blessed and in Christ’s kingdom. Especially when you get to later in this chapter and you see things like if you even think evil thoughts against someone, you are guilty before God. Or when you get to verse 48 and are told that the standard is being perfect as God is perfect. Who then can be saved? Well, Jesus later answers that question by saying that what is impossible with man is possible with God. We need to realize that we can’t save ourselves. That’s impossible. In fact, there is only one human on earth that has as ever lived out this kind of righteousness. That is Jesus himself, the long awaited Messiah. And so as we study these Beatitudes, and the rest of the sermon, we will see the righteousness of Christ coming through. We must be driven to the cross of Christ, who was that sacrifice without blemish, whose blood was offered for our atonement, for the remission of ours sins. That we could be seen as pure in heart, when he have not had pure hearts. That’s the first effect this sermon must have on us. We must realize that it is impossible for us to save ourselves because it is impossible for us to have this kind of righteousness. It will only be by grace and mercy and abundant pardon that we can be counted as part of Christ’s kingdom.
But second, we should not then dismiss this message as only a grand ideal that we can never live out. We must not then excuse ourselves from actually trying to live this out, saying this is something we can’t achieve until we are perfected in heaven. That must not be the right response, because as we read over the commands in this sermon, we realize that as strict as they can sound, they are describing life here and now, this side of heaven. The ethics described here are the perfect ethics of the kingdom of heaven; they are the ethics that a citizen of this kingdom should espouse, but they are ethics tailored for life here and now. For example, last week I mentioned that when it talks about loving your enemies later in this chapter, that belongs to the “already” timeframe of the kingdom of heaven. We can’t dismiss them for now and say that this is describing something I won’t be until I get to glory. Clearly that can’t be the case, because this is not an ethic that will even be relevant when the kingdom of heaven comes in glory. We will not need the teaching about loving our enemies when we become perfected in righteousness in heaven — there won’t be any enemies there.
In the same way, the call in this chapter to be salt and light, only makes sense for the here and now. Here and now Christians are to be different than the rest of the unbelieving world around us. Or take the Lord’s Prayer in next chapter: will we really need to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” after his kingdom has already come in its glory? Of course not. The point is that these many demanding laws given in the Sermon on the Mount aren’t just grand ideals that we can’t keep until we get to heaven. No, these perfect laws that we will not keep perfectly this side of heaven, are given for this side of heaven. They are not just grand ideals to dismiss. Rather, we are to put our trust in Christ. Christ has the power to live them out. Part of our discipleship is to daily follow him. It’s to recognize his Spirit of righteousness living in us and to see that part of being right now a citizen of his kingdom, is to seek with all our heart to live for him. To see that he gives his Spirit to us to that end. To realize that his circumcising of our hearts involves this.
And so the fact that we live this out imperfectly is irrelevant. Our imperfection should never drive us to excuse our behavior, or to be content with our falling short of the standard. It should leave us poor in spirit, mourning, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, with a real desire to grow in meekness and purity of heart. We then look to live as a peacemaker, even toward our enemies who would try to persecute us because we say that we will try to seek first Christ and his kingdom and his righteousness no matter the cost. And so all of this should drive us to see the need for the cross, but never as an excuse to not seek righteousness. This is the wonderful dynamic of our justification and sanctification. Justification that has already happened. Our sanctification which is happening and yet to fully happen. But let us press on.
This then, brothers and sisters, is a reminder for us of what the blessed life looks like. Not at the world thinks. Not as so many other religions think. Even some groups in Christendom want to preach a message that sees the blessed life differently. But let us go back to the Word in this Sermon to see what a blessed and happy life looks like here and now and into eternity. It will be through entering the kingdom of heaven through Christ. But for now, those blessings, are an already/not yet sort of thing. Our happiness and joy and contentment needs to appreciate that.
Let me give you some opposite examples by way of application. I’ll give you some examples from back in Jesus’ day first. Back in Jesus day, you had different groups that might have tried to tell you how to have a blessed life. For the Pharisees, it was through religious tradition, and outward religious observance, and a sort of moralism that actually fell way too short. Or take the Sadducees — they didn’t even believe in an afterlife; everything for them had to be about the here and now; which is no surprise why Jospehus wrote that only the rich elite supported the Sadducees. Or take the Herodians — they sought for happiness via worldly compromise. On the other hand, you had the Essenes — they looked for happiness by being separate from the world. Or take the Zealots, they looked for happiness by wanting to take over the political powers of the day, in that case, Rome. All of these had claims for what would make someone truly happy and blessed. But Jesus’ teachings of what it means to be blessed in his kingdom would have challenged them all.
It’s amazing how many of those opposed schools of thought still find varying expression today; even within the broader scope of what is called Christendom. Within so-called Christian churches, you can find groups that are all about tradition and outward religious observance as your way of a blessed life. You can also find some that have little or no concern for blessings of a future life, but are largely looking for Christianity to be all about bringing blessings here and now — think prosperity gospel as one example. Or think of how theological liberalism has transformed many so-called churches into basically thinking like the pagan world does, but throwing in some Christian lingo here and there. Such a resulting worldview might be branded with a few Christian terms, but when you really analyze it, it’s morals and goals are the worlds, not Christ’s. Or like the Essenes of old, there are still groups within Christendom that think they need to separate from society in order to find happiness and blessing. But how does that fit with this sermon that sees Christ’s people interacting with the world, a world that persecutes them, that sets themselves as our enemies, etc? And of course, far too common today is that there is a temptation to think like the Zealots of old, that if we can just take over the political governments for Christ, then we will finally have happiness and the blessed life.
But this sermon, and the Beatitudes especially, get us to reconsider what it means to have a happy and blessed life as a Christian. We must keep challenging the different ways of happiness and blessing presented by the world, and even within Christendom, with this sermon. As this sermon goes on to describe — do we want to go down the wide path to destruction? Or do we want to go down the narrow path which leads to this blessed life? The blessedness and happiness described here is not as the world thinks. This blessing and happiness has an already and not yet component. For now, there is especially a heavenly and spiritual component. The physical and outward blessings are largely not yet. We must realize this or else be surprised when the troubles come as if something strange was happening to us (1 Pet 4:12). We must accept that there will be sufferings and hardships in this world, but in a way that a Christian can still have a perspective of their blessed state in the Lord. That will require faith and trust. It will evoke a longing for Christ’s return, or at least in the immediate for that day when we personally depart to be with Christ. We look forward to the reversal that will come at the end. We look forward for Christ coming in final glory. But for now, we rejoice that he has come already to bring his grace, through the cross. That is the blessing we especially cling to now as we look to follow him here and now in this age. Rejoice that he is with us, even in the tribulations. Realize that amidst it all, he says to you, “You are blessed.” Blessed. Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.